The following is a letter that I wrote to my daughter, Brooke, on her eighth birthday. I suppose I should tell you that Brooke is autistic, a word that doesn't so much as begin to describe her, but which, I guess, is contextually necessary.
She's nine now, and still not in a place where the words would likely make much sense to her. I don't doubt that someday she will be, but that day is not today. And that's OK.
For now, it's not the words that matter; it's the love.
To Brooke, on her eighth birthday, and every day thereafter...
Eight. My God, how did we get to eight?
It's been a ride, hasn't it, baby girl? Yes, I'm still going to call you baby girl. Sorry, honey, but eight ain't gonna change that. Heck, 80 won't change that either. You will ALWAYS be your mama's baby girl.
As I snuck into your room this morning, you watched me, didn't you? Those big, wide eyes followed me as I brought the balloons in one by one. I tried so hard to be quiet, but we both know your mama would never make it as a cat burglar. So with each trip in and out of your room, you watched, quiet as a church mouse, but taking it all in. There's never a moment that you're not watching, listening, absorbing and processing is there? 'A mind like a steel trap,' as your papa would say. It's all in there, isn't it, baby? Eight years of life experiences catalogued and stored away for later use in that incredible little head of yours. I am in awe of your capacity to remember it all.
Eight years, my God. A lifetime. I'll never forget that morning, eight years ago today. Please, give me my baby. Please. I just need to hold my baby. Your temperature was too low, they said. I'm sorry, Jess, they just need to keep her a little while longer. It was so hard for Daddy to have to keep telling me that it just wasn't time yet. And I just couldn't hear it. NO, I NEED my girl. And she needs me. I felt so empty, so wrong without you. Nine months we'd shared this body. Nine tumultuous months. I did my best, baby, but pregnancy was never my strong suit. And then it was time. Time for me to hold you. And I couldn't.
And finally, finally they brought you to me. Finally I held you to my chest and laid you down exactly where you belonged. And I held on for dear life to my beautiful, perfect baby. Ten long fingers and ten tiny toes and those eyes -- those giant saucers taking it all in, even then. I wonder if somewhere you've catalogued even those days.
People came and went. The nurses were determined to bring you to the nursery, but Mama wouldn't have it. She'll sleep with me. They worried that I wasn't sleeping, taking time to heal. They were right, but it didn't matter. Those nights, those four first nights of your life were OUR time. No one there but us. I wouldn't give those nights up for anything. Sleep is overrated.
God, baby, even then -- even before I had any idea who you would be -- I loved you so much it filled the room, raced down the hall and flew out the doors of the hospital - a love too big to be contained by bricks and mortar. It spiraled straight up to God that day and came back on the wings of angels. There is nothing on this earth bigger or more perfect than my love for you, Brooke. Nothing.
Over time, you changed everything. You sure as heck changed me. Thank God. You changed the mother I thought I would be into the one that I needed to be. And it wasn't just me. You changed your daddy and your sister and everyone who came into our world. You laughed at what we thought mattered and showed us what really did. You stretched us past our insecurities and doubts to a place painted with a technicolor brush. With the vivid colors of a life lived awake, alive, aware. You pulled us into hearing beyond the background noise, tuning in to a totally different frequency where there IS no background. Where every utterance is crisp and clear and has equal meaning and weight and beauty.
You made us cry with your anguish yes, but oh, my sweet girl, how you've made us laugh! And God when you laugh -- well I would swear the heavens break open and flood the earth with joy when you let it loose. How did I describe it once? The laugh that starts with her shoulders and takes her whole body along for the ride. The laugh that sets her eyes on fire and whose sheer energy could launch a rocket ship and send it into orbit. The contagious laugh that leaves an electric happiness in its wake. There is no greater gift than that laugh.
I know you won't believe me when I tell you how much you affect everyone around you. How you bring us all -- every single human being who is blessed to walk with you, even for a short while -- to a higher place. Or how you've started a veritable revolution of compassion and tolerance and community. Or how you've cracked open even the hardest hearts and made them FEEL something.
I know, I'm your mom. It's my job to say that, right? I can see you reading this some day (still, I pray for that day) and rolling your eyes. Fine, you don't believe me? Fair enough. How about this?
I can't really explain what has happened between Brooke and me these last six weeks but it has been life changing for me. Never before has a child (other than my own) crept into my heart as quickly and stealthily as your daughter has. I have watched in complete amazement as she works and works to connect with the world.
Beyond the repetition and the grasping attempts to pull from her limited repertoire of conversation starters, there is this aura that is solely Brooke's. It is an invisible exhale, a breath of color, warmth, love, tenderness and song. And then, in the midst of the 'oh yeahs' and missed nuances, the sensory overloads -- there are these scintillating seconds when with just the slightest eye contact and a well-rehearsed smile, a tuck of the hair behind the ears, she pours her love around you the best she knows how. It makes my eyes well, my hair stand and my heart sing ...
...I can't explain it really. I just know she has touched my soul... She is so brave and has kept me honest. I need to come out of my comfort zone more often with even the tiniest amount of the courage that she shows each day.
Do you believe me now? Cause those word aren't mine, baby. They came from Miss T who had known you for SIX WEEKS when she wrote them. I don't make this stuff up, Brooke. You CHANGE people. One by one, you crawl into their souls and you CHANGE them. I don't know how you do it. I'm betting that you don't either. It's simply who you are.
I know I tell you all the time, baby girl, but please don't let the repetition dull the enormity of the feeling behind the words. I am so proud of you. I know it hasn't been an easy road these last eight years. In many ways it will get harder still. But you will rise to every challenge with grace and humor and that indefatigable spirit that ensures that all is possible. And you will have your mama by your side every step of the way -- crying, cheering, rejoicing. And once in a while screaming, "That's my girl! The one right there on the left. The one changing the world!"
Happy eighth birthday, my sweet Brooke.
Your mama loves you more than anything.
Jess can typically be found at Diary of a Mom where she writes about life with her two daughters, nine year-old Brooke and eleven year-old Katie, and her husband, Luau. This post was originally published there in March of 2011.